On Amedeo Modigliani (1884-1920)
By Christian Kile
‘…and all around us raged Cubism, all conquering but alien to Modigliani…’- Anna Akhmatova
‘Modigliani’s drawing is supremely elegant. He was our aristocrat. His line, sometimes so faint it seems the ghost of a line, never gets bogged down, avoiding this with the alacrity of a Siamese cat.’ – Jean Cocteau
The first sculpture I saw by Amedeo Modigliani was the kneeling Caryatid (1914) in New York’s Museum of Modern Art, carved in limestone, with both arms raised and planted on one knee – a reprise from the antique. Hung beside it was a reclining nude by the same artist painted five years later, about as carnal as painting is likely to get.
Reclining nude, 1919, oil on canvas, Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) – Seeing the Venus de Milo, Modigliani told his friend and muse, poet Anna Akhmatova that ‘women with beautiful figures who were worth modelling or drawing always seemed unshapely when clothed.’
They are far removed from the preoccupations and modern approaches pursued by Modigliani’s contemporaries: anxiety, the cult of the machine and Futurist rejection.
No doubt this plays a part in his immense popularity today, augmented by his life that conforms to the reckless, romantic stereotype of the artist: his appeal to women, self-destructive behaviour and early death; he died from tubercular meningitis in 1920 at the age of 35.
Modigliani is the type of artist that many people feel they ‘get’, whose work does not draw blank or bemused looks − the sense of accident and ugliness so often felt to be characteristic of modern painting and sculpture is absent.
His works are instantly recognisable, which may explain why, despite their popularity, he did not spawn a school. His stylisations are not something that can be easily absorbed by other artists into their work without seeming glaringly derivative.
Studying art was an escape for Modigliani from the maltreatment, poverty, distress, suicide and tuberculosis that plagued his family. Born in 1884 in Livorno, Tuscany, he was a young boy when his mother Eugenia Garsin said he ‘already sees himself as a painter’.
As his father Flaminio was absent for parts of his childhood, his mother was often the sole provider for the family and a dominant figure in Modigliani’s life. As the youngest child, she mollycoddled him and later accompanied him to southern Italy, and then on to Florence and Venice where Modigliani enrolled in fine arts courses.
At the beginning of the twentieth century Modigliani relocated to the town of Pietrasanta in Tuscany and, despite his lack of prior training, began to sculpt. It was a medium that he eagerly embraced. But having previously suffered from pleurisy as a youth, the quantities of dust involved in the process wreaked havoc on his already weak lungs, eventually blighting his efforts and physical and mental health.
His most prolific period for creating sculpture coincided with the zenith of Cubism in 1911-1912. This possibly explains the lack of success Modigliani had in realising his hopes for his sculptures to be incorporated into an architectural scheme.
Only one of his Caryatids, executed in limestone, is now known to exist. But his concept remains valid: one can imagine many of his works enlarged to a monumental scale and placed into an architectural arrangement.
Caryatid, 1914, limestone, Museum of Modern Art (MoMA)
Sadly, some two figures and 23 heads are all that remain of his sculptural output, their finishes ranging from the coarse hewn to a soft lustre. The characteristic curvature of the head that eventually found its way into his paintings is already present.
At the back of these often androgynous, anonymous carved heads there are usually sections of the raw stone material. That he did not complete most of these sculptures in the round may have been due simply to his inexperience as a carver and poor health. But perhaps keeping some of the surface of the original block was deliberate − a key signifying unrealised projects: conceived architecturally, some of his sculptures could well have been installed as corbels or keystones in a building.
For in common with other artists of the period, Modigliani dreamed of completing monumental works, his idea of a temple supported by caryatids being a prime example. A series of preparatory studies boldly reveal the breadth of his vision even if they are too impractical to have served as working drawings.
‘Heads−a decorative ensemble’, comprising seven stone heads he exhibited at the Paris ‘Salon d’Automne’ in 1912, is probably the nearest he came to attaining his grand ambition.
Head, 1911-12, limestone, Tate
Drawing from the influence of primitive art, prominent in Paris before the First World War, Modigliani sought to achieve an ‘archaic simplicity’. His carved heads, with expressions ranging from the inscrutable to the enigmatic, exhibit the characteristic elongated elegance with which we associate him.
Modigliani’s understanding of primitive art and its relationship to the modern were acquired in Paris. When he arrived there in 1906, Braque and Picasso were embarking on a period that was to produce some of their greatest work. But aside from a brief period in 1915-16 when Modigliani’s paintings show shades of a Cubist influence, he drew less on the art of his contemporaries than might have been expected.
Rather, at a time when the appeal of Renaissance classicism was on the wane, Modigliani chose to filter his artistic experience in Italy through the avant-garde atmosphere of Paris.
He used the Renaissance tradition of Giorgione and Titian as his foundation and was attracted by the way in which Manet, Degas and Cézanne applied this classicism to their own work. Significantly, it prompted him to develop the distinctive richness of his colours – nowhere more pronounced than in his nudes. I struggle to think of another 20th century artist who achieved such sumptuous colour.
Modigliani believed that ‘beauty’ is ‘truth’, and to capture what he perceived as the essence of his subjects he was obsessed with achieving purity of line, simplifying and discarding all excess.
Which is why the vitality of Modigliani’s drawing is never in doubt. It formed a vital part of his practice, often lightly handled and produced in great quantities. Their linear characteristic was developed early and remained ‘…a silent conversation. A dialogue between his line and ours’ observed Jean Cocteau.
The figures and faces of classical antiquity, from the simplicity of the Cycladic art to the Egyptian goddesses spoke directly to Modigliani, as his enthusiastic visits with the Russian poet Anna Akhmatova to the Louvre indicate, and their influence can be seen in many of his compositions.
Cycladic female figure, 2700-2600 B.C., Marble, The Metropolitan Museum of Art
The 1918 oil of a seated Jeanne Hébuterne, with her exaggerated long neck, more serpent-like than swan, and Egyptian hairstyle, comes to mind. Then there are his ¾ length portraits of her, which, like the caryatid sculptures and other portraits, are presented with a slant of the head and sometimes blank eyes, conveying a remoteness verging on apparent obliviousness to the artist.
Jeanne Hébuterne in profile, 1918, oil on canvas, Private Collection
Modigliani achieved his greatest paintings during his final years when he was riddled with ill health and anxiety. Always improvident – he spent money as soon as he earned it − he became increasingly despondent at the failure of his sculptural ambitions, exacerbated by his lack of patronage and the success of his contemporaries such as Brancusi and Epstein.
Nonetheless his contribution to The School of Paris was substantial. He developed a new style of reduction, simplicity and approach to colour that utilised his instincts, skill and discernment in uniting elements from a vast range of cultures.
Modigliani’s achievement is all the more impressive because he did not embrace any particular ‘ism’ or group but worked alone throughout his life to expand and develop his visionary statement of intent, made at the age of 17 years:
‘…I am trying to formulate with the greatest lucidity the truths of art and life I have discerned scattered amongst the beauties of Rome; and as their inner meaning becomes clear to me, I shall seek to reveal and re-arrange their composition. I could almost say metaphysical architecture, in order to create out of it my truth of life, beauty and art.’
Jeanne Hébuterne, 1919, oil on canvas, The Metropolitan Museum of Art – Jeanne Hébuterne, an art student, was Modigliani’s lover during the last three years of his life and mother of his child. Pregnant with their second child, she committed suicide after his death
The exhibition, Modigliani, is at Tate Modern from November 23rd 2017 until April 2nd 2018